Pirates and web-slingers, ingeniously animated creatures from charming ogres to cuisine-mad rats, giant space-invader robots and angst-ridden teen wizards — Hollywood's dream factories churned out a lot of fantasy in 2007. Four movies topped $300 million at the box office — the first time that's happened.
But to offset the glittering behemoths at the multiplex, there was a trove of glittering jewels at the art house. Filmmaking seemed especially bipolar this year, in fact, even within individual movies. Comedies about death and destruction, dramas leavened by humor: Tim Burton served up a serial-killer musical, of all things, with a throat-slashing title character and a sidekick who bakes the victims into meat pies. Delicious, as it turned out.
Also a cut above was another serial-killer flick, this one creepy in a more contemporary way: No Country For Old Men seemed composed almost entirely of nerve-rattling images from the Coen Brothers and eerie dialogue from Cormac McCarthy's novel.
There was also killing aplenty in a thoroughly unconventional western, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Against breathtaking landscapes, Casey Affleck played the coward, with Brad Pitt as the famous outlaw who gave his assassin the gun that would eventually kill him.
Theirs was, shall we say, a complicated relationship. And a film about the complications of geopolitics turned out to be the year's most unexpected comedy: Charlie Wilson's War, the true story of some intrepid souls — including a congressman and a CIA agent — who helped organize a covert war in the 1980s.
With a script by Aaron Sorkin and direction by Mike Nichols, Charlie Wilson's War was sophisticated, mainstream filmmaking for grownups. For sophisticated mainstream filmmaking for kids, you pretty much have to look to Pixar these days. And they made what was, hands down, the year's most mouthwatering film: Ratatouille, about a rat named Remy who wants to be a French chef. And as Remy took the cooking plunge, Pixar digitizers made sure there was plenty of wit to savor.
That's five of the year's best — all major Hollywood releases. So for the next three, I'm gonna take us overseas, first to another exercise in animation. Persepolis, based on a four-volume graphic novel, uses elegant black-and-white line drawings to tell a coming-of-age tale about a rebellious little girl in Iran, who finds herself restricted, but not bowed, by the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.
An authoritarian crackdown in another society — communist East Germany — is the subject of a riveting suspense film called The Lives of Others, about undercover surveillance, and the awakening, perhaps too late, of conscience.
In Germany, a man betrayed by his country; in France, a man betrayed by his body: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly tells a true story about a stroke victim left paralyzed, unable to speak, and capable of moving only one eyelid — with which he managed to blink out an entire memoir, letter by letter. Movie-of-the-week stuff? You'd think, but Julian Schnabel's inventive filmmaking made it oddly liberating onscreen.
The Savages was another film that crossed up expectations, managing to be entirely realistic and still somehow to find humor in a story about putting an addled parent into a nursing home. It was intimate, recognizably real, and splendidly acted (by a cast that included Laura Linney, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Philip Bosco).
And I'm going to round out the Top 10 with another small film, but one that had a big voice: Once, a sort of new-fangled, old-fashioned street-musical with melodies that truly soar.
But 10 is such an arbitrary number, especially in a year as packed with eccentric films as 2007, so let's just keep going. I also liked the swooning romance of the World-War Two drama Atonement, the wide-open spaces of Sean Penn's Into the Wild, and Julie Christie's gorgeous performance as a woman with Alzheimer's in Away from Her.
The Italian film The Golden Door opened a fascinating window on immigration; This Is England looked at skinhead culture with an insider's perspective; and La Vie en Rose had not just a terrific performance by Marion Cotillard, but those glorious Edith Piaf songs to boot.
What music was to La Vie en Rose, violence was to a pair of epics about greed and bad character — American Gangster, starring Denzel Washington, and There Will Be Blood, starring Daniel Day-Lewis.
The drama Michael Clayton was a piercing look at corporate corruption, the documentary No End in Sight a dispassionate look at America's rush to war in Iraq.
And a trio of small, wonderfully quirky films about family found universality in situations that don't seem all that universal: The Namesake, a rich assimilation comedy about East Indians in the U.S.; Lars and the Real Girl, a surprisingly touching tale about a recluse who introduces an anatomically correct doll to his neighbors as his girlfriend; and Juno, the hippest comedy around, about a 16-year-old who's darned if she's letting an unexpected pregnancy knock her off stride.
That's 23 reasons for cheer this year — unorthodox, offbeat reasons that we should probably hang onto as we head into 2008, full of optimism about the no-doubt equally unorthodox, offbeat charms Hollywood will find in Hannah Montana, Sex in the City, and Horton Hears a Who.